Weekly Case Summaries: June 12, 2009

United States Supreme Court

Caperton v. A.T. Massey Coal, et al.

06/08/09 : Cite No. 08-22 : Disqualification of Judges

Issue

In denying a recusal motion directed at him, did a judge who had previously received generous campaign contributions linked directly to the board chair and principal officers of the corporation in the case before him violate the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment?

Holding

Yes. It is unconstitutional for a state supreme court justice to sit on a case involving the financial interests of a major donor to that judge's election campaign.
Read opinion.

Commentary 

The majority opinion took great pains to point out that this was an "extreme case," so it is not clear whether we will see many other such recusal motions supported on due process grounds. This is certainly an "extreme case." In addition to contributing the $1,000 statutory maximum to the judicial candidate's campaign committee, the corporate officer donated almost $2.5 million to a political organization that opposed the candidate's opponent and supported the candidate. The corporate officer's donations accounted for more than two-thirds of the total funds that the political organization raised. The corporate officer also spent just over $500,000 on independent expenditures to support the judicial candidate. The corporate officer's $3 million in contributions were more than the total amount spent by all other of the judicial candidate's supporters and three times the amount spent by the judicial candidate's own committee. The judicial candidate that the corporate officer supported won, receiving 53% of the vote against the opponent, who was the incumbent.

Texas Courts of Appeals

Mason v. State - 7th COA

06/04/09 : Cite No. 07-07-0383-CR : Improper Grand Jury Proceedings

Issue

During the defendant's trial for capital murder, did the trial court incorrectly deny the defendant's pre-trial motion to quash the indictment after the State conceded that the indictment was obtained in a grand jury proceeding that violated Code of Criminal Procedure art. 20.011 and 20.04?

Holding

Yes. The presence of two law enforcement officers who questioned witnesses in the grand jury room was clearly improper. The officers questioned a witness regarding evidentiary details, asked leading and suggestive questions, attempted to rehabilitate the witness, and bolstered the witness's testimony. While the State acknowledged its mistake, it still tried to persuade the trial court to deny the motion to quash, which was the ultimate result. The case is reversed and remanded for a new trial.
Read opinion.

Commentary 

Pay very close attention to this case. The harm analysis employed by the court of appeals may encourage other courts to examine other errors that happen during the grand jury process to determine if the error had any effect upon the indictment that was ultimately returned. I am hoping that the Court of Criminal Appeals decides to review this case, so that we can get a definitive decision on how to treat an error that occurs during the grand jury process.

Texas Attorney General Opinion Requests

Opinion Request from the Potter County Attorney

05/22/09 : Cite No. RQ-0800-GA : Transfer of County Funds

Issue

May a county auditor require prior approval of a transfer of county funds from one account in the county depository to another or from one investment to another?
Read request.

Opinion Request from the Grimes County Auditor

05/26/09 : Cite No. RQ-0802-GA : Parks and Wildlife Offense Fine

Issue

Despite Parks and Wildlife Code §12.107 (Remission of Fines), is a county allowed to impose a special expense (without a fine) on a defendant and then retain 100 percent of any special expense imposed under Code of Criminal Procedure art. 45.051 for a violation of the Parks and Wildlife Code?
Read request.

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